Apple threatened with legal action over use of alleged "blood minerals"

Johannesburg — The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has threatened U.S. tech giant Apple with legal action over what it says are “illegally exploited” minerals from the impoverished nation in its products. U.S. and French lawyers representing the DRC’s government sent a letter to Apple on April 22 warning the company it could face legal action if it continues with the alleged practice.

The letter accuses Apple of purchasing minerals smuggled out of the DRC into Rwanda, where their origin is allegedly obscured so they can find their way into the global technology supply chain. It makes clear that the DRC government intends to address the matter and is looking into legal options to do so.

The letter sent by the lawyers to Apple CEO Tim Cook includes a list of questions laying out the DRC’s concerns over alleged “blood minerals” in Apple’s supply chain, and it demands answers within three weeks. Similar letters, seen by CBS News, were also sent to two of Apple’s subsidiaries in France, demanding answers in the same timeframe.

Africa Conflict Minerals
An Aug. 17, 2012 file photo shows a Congolese man digging for cassiterite, the primary ore of tin, at a mine in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Marc Hofer/AP

“Apple has affirmed that it verifies the origins of minerals it uses to manufacture its products,” the letter notes. It says that the tin, tungsten, tantalum — the 3Ts — and gold that its suppliers purchase are conflict free and do not finance war. But those claims do not appear to be based on concrete, verifiable evidence.”

Amsterdam & Partners, the law firm representing the DRC government, has written a 53-page report outlining the claims against Apple, entitled “Blood Minerals: Everyone sees the massacres in Eastern Congo, but everyone is silent. The laundering of DRC’s 3T Minerals by Rwanda and by private entities.” 

In their letter to Apple, the lawyers said that in the process of preparing their report, “it has become clear to us that year after year, Apple has sold technology made with minerals sourced from a region whose population is being devastated by grave violations of human rights. The iPhones, Mac computers and accessories that Apple sells to its customers around the world rely on supply chains that are too opaque, and that are tainted by the blood of the Congolese people.”

Apple did not directly reply to some questions sent by CBS News about how it traces critical minerals in its supply chain all the way back to the ground from where they’re sourced. In its response, Apple indicated that third-party entities carry out the verification work on behalf of the company.

Mining in Kivu Province in Congo
A Miner holds tantalum stones in Numbi, in South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, in an April 28, 2010 file photo.

Kuni Takahashi/Getty

In its statement to CBS News, Apple said: “Every smelter and refiner in our supply chain participated in independent, third party minerals audits for tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold. And when we see an issue we act, last year we removed 14 refiners and smelters from our supply chain.”

“While we’re proud to be recognized as leaders in responsible sourcing, we understand our work is never done,” Apple said.

The company noted a line from its most recent annual conflict minerals report, which said that based on its third-party audit and traceability programs, “we found no reasonable basis for concluding that any of the smelters or refiners of 3TG determined to be in our supply chain as of December 31, 2023 directly or indirectly financed or benefited armed groups in the DRC or an adjoining country.”

The DRC’s mineral-rich Great Lakes region has been mired in violence since war broke out in the 1990s. In late 2021, a group called the March 23 Movement, or the M23 rebels, emerged as a rising player among the warring local militias.

Congo Democratic Republic Political Map


The United Nations, many Western governments and the DRC all accuse Rwanda’s government of backing M23 in a bid to control and exploit their much larger eastern neighbor’s vast mineral resources. 

A Rwandan government spokeswoman, Yolande Makolo, was quoted Friday by the French news agency AFP as calling the DRC’s claims of critical minerals being smuggled through Rwanda, “a rehashing of baseless allegations and conjecture.”

The exploitation of the DRC’s resources is not a new story. A CBS News investigation in 2018 followed the complex supply chain of cobalt mined in the DRC. It found children working in the mines there to extract the cobalt, a key mineral component in modern batteries for virtually all cellphones, laptops, electric vehicles and a range of other ubiquitous gadgets.

“Words don’t comprehend the enormity of what is happening in the DRC, and it’s not an issue that can be left without a result,” Robert Amsterdam, one of the lawyers representing the DRC government, told CBS News. “We have to challenge what is really a global big lie — that somehow a country like Rwanda, which is mineral poor, can be responsible for exporting these massive quantities.” 

“The DRC is sitting on a near monopoly of the critical ingredients of the green revolution,” Amsterdam added. “The DRC president was reelected recently and the issue of getting the minerals right is one of the key planks he is going to pursue.”

Amsterdam said that while Apple is not the only major tech company suspected of using unethically sourced minerals in its hardware, they singled out the U.S. tech giant because it “prides itself on principle and morality — and they might have the courage to do what is right. This is not just an issue of lawsuit, but sovereignty.”

“We have listed very precise questions to Apple, and then we will look at various judicial options in the U.S. and France,” another lawyer on the team, Paris-based William Bourdon, told CBS News about the next steps. 

“It is precedent-setting, in many ways, as the [DRC] government has decided at the highest level that they have to bring accountability to bear,” said Amsterdam. 

Bourdon said he was not aware of any other government considering similar legal action over a global supply chain issue. 

“It’s unprecedented,” he said. “This is a very big deal, which we are just at the beginning of. Expect more to be coming.”

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